Thursday, 12 February 2015

Shark Conservation with Scuba Junkie and Shark Stewards

Shark conservation, the heart of our SEAS conservation work, has been given a special boost this month. As well as amazing sightings of scalloped hammerheads, large grey reefs and numerous white tip reef sharks at Pulau Sipadan, we are lucky to receive a visit from the Director of Shark Stewards, David McGuire.  Shark Stewards is an American based NGO that was set up by David himself. Their focus is to restore ocean health by protecting apex predators such as sharks. Their aim is to protect critical marine habitat through the establishment of Marin Protected Areas. They are an inspiring organisation that has achieved a great amount. His visit has really brought to mind how lucky we are with so many shark sightings at Sipadan – as over a third of all shark species are threatened with extinction in the near future. We sat down with David McGuire and talked about what sparked his interest in shark conservation, the threats sharks face and what everyone and anyone can do to help

Why Protect Sharks?
This is a question that many of us will have either wondered or been asked. The movie ‘ Jaws’ created huge hysteria around this stunning creature, with people too scared to even get into the ocean. Sharks were portrayed as a monster, as a man-killing machine that needs to be destroyed. This is a perception that has been difficult to change with many people. But those who have dived with sharks will understand that they are beautiful, curious, but often shy creatures. With fear so hugely associated with sharks, many do not understand why there is a need to protect them.

The underwater world is in a state of delicate balance. Sharks are the apex predators in this ecosystem they have no natural predators. A healthy reef system needs to be managed and it is the sharks, at the top of the food chain, that do this. As the top predator, they regulate the populations of predator fish directly beneath them in the food chain – who in turn prey on fish that eat algae. Without sharks regulating the population of the predator fish, the numbers of fish that control the algae population will decrease. Consequently algae will begin to blanket the reef, smothering it. The result of this will be devastating and the underwater ecosystem will fall apart.

David McGuire during his presentation on Pulau Mabul
It was David’s own observations of this in 2003 that brought him into shark conservation. Whilst on a diving and sailing trip in French Polynesia he noticed there was a marked difference in the structure of the reefs that had sharks and those that didn’t the reefs with the higher shark population being the healthiest. Any of our divers who have dived at Pulau Sipadan will have also noticed this. He was also curious to see that there was such a big difference in shark populations around these islands. It was here that he learnt of the devastating shark fin trade, and was unfortunate enough to witness sharks that had their fins cut off being dumped, alive, in the water.

But it is not only the health of the reef that we must consider when determining the importance of sharks.  The economic value of a live shark is so much greater than that of a dead one. During his presentation, David McGuire showed a short film about the Semporna Shark Sanctuary, produced by ScubaZoo. This powerful video explains that a live shark is worth over US$800,000 over its lifetime in terms of eco-tourism, whereas a dead one is sold for just US$100. The growing eco-tourism industry in Semporna is worth far more than many people may realise.
To see this incredible video just follow this link:

Whale Sharks: One of the many species of shark seen in the proposed Semporna Shark Sanctuary

The Threats Sharks Face:
Although Sharks have been portrayed at man-eating beasts, this is far from the truth. As the apex predators sharks have no natural predators, so the only reason for their decline in population is, sadly, us. We have become too good at what we do. 

                Over Fishing is huge threat faces the underwater world. Boats will place down massive nets   either  purse seine nets, or nets that drag over the ocean floor. There is no discrimination in what these nets catch, meaning sharks, rays and turtles will be dragged along, as well as thousands of fish that are not the target species of the fishermen. By the time the net is pulled to the surface these creatures are often dead. Some of these are just dumped overboard – a wasteful practice known as ‘bycatch’.  Such unsustainable fishing practices are the reason why we do not serve seafood at Scuba Junkie.

                Long-lining is, unfortunately, a widely used fishing practice. Miles of baited hooks on long lines will be left in the ocean. The bait attracts many types of marine life. Sharks will lie trapped on the hooks for hours, with a hook through their mouth unable to escape. Once the sharks are brought onto the boat they are stripped of their fins and cast back into the ocean – still alive.

Shark Fin Soup – The consumption of shark fin soup is possibly the biggest threat facing shark species. Shark fin soup is a Chinese delicacy that represents wealth and prestige. It used to just be a small percentage of the population that was able to consume it, but with a growing economy more and more people are consuming this soup at weddings and other social events. The shark fin provides no flavour for this dish, which actually uses chicken broth as a base. However, many wrongly believe that the fin contains various health benefits. Research has actually shown that consuming shark fin leads to mercury poisoning, and is directly linked with Alzheimer’s disease.
The demand for shark fins for this Chinese delicacy is decimating shark populations across the world. The fin of a shark is worth an incredible amount, and although restrictions have been placed on shark finning in a few places around world, many are taking the risk because of the money they can make.

 Although many are quick to blame the Asian countries for this, countries in Europe and America are actually in the top 10 for supplying shark fin! These problems are right on our doorsteps and there is more that we can be doing than you may realise. 

Semporna Shark Sanctuary

The designs for the Semporna Shark Sanctuary began in 2009. The idea was to create a protected area for sharks and rays in the east of Sabah, defending them against commercial fishing and finning. The East Sabah area boasts 63 species of shark and 68 species of ray. Situated in the centre of the coral triangle, this is an extraordinarily biodiverse area.
But the Semporna Shark Sanctuary is not just about prevention of shark fishing – it is also about securing the future of the local community by providing sustainable economic alternatives to fishing. With the growth of ecotourism in the area, the proposal aims to provide opportunities for people - new job positions are becoming available; boat captains, divemasters, instructors, housekeeping along with many others. This gives people the chance to provide for themselves and their families without having to fish.
As David mentioned, data is key to the implementation of the Semporna Shark Sanctuary. Over the years our staff has collected information on shark sightings in the proposed Semporna Shark Sanctuary area, and unfortunately there has been a decline. This data demonstrates that creating the Sanctuary is vital. But David’s goals don’t end there, and neither do ours. It is not just the Semporna area that needs protecting, but all of Sabah.  In fact, David discussed how important it in to work in shark conservation in the whole of Malaysia, due to its location in the coral triangle. 

Schooling Scalloped Hammerheads seen at Pulau Sipadan

What you can do: 

David has been an activist in shark conservation for many years now, and so we discussed with him what he thinks people can do to aid this cause. 

Spread the word
It is almost surprising how many people are not even aware of the consumption of shark fin soup, let alone the effect it has on the underwater world. When you learn about these things inform others about it. The more people that know, the more people who can help create change! 

Take a pledge
Don’t eat shark fin soup!! By refusing to eat shark fin soup and refusing to eat in restaurants that sell shark fin products you can help to reduce the demand for shark fins. It may seem like a small thing to do, but every little really does count! Consider not eating seafood, or only eat seafood that you know comes from sustainable sources. 

Support dive centres that are making an effort
As divers we are ambassadors for the underwater world and many dive centres will take this responsibility extremely seriously. When booking your diving holiday do some research, find out which dive centres in the area are making the extra effort. Many dive centres around Asia and the rest of the world will be actively getting involved in helping to create Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and raising awareness for conservation and environmental work in their area. Donations to organisations such as Shark Stewards, or SEAS, are also extremely beneficial to this important cause.

We extend a huge thanks to David for coming to see us. He gave an extremely interesting presentation and has been discussing the Semporna Shark Sanctuary with our on-site Environmental Officers Dave and Cat. We look forward to working closely with him and others through the Sabah Shark Alliance to implement the Semporna Shark Sanctuary. 

For more information on David McGuire and the incredible work he has done through Shark Stewards  please visit their website: